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Hammering Home the Holiday's Clear Message

December 6, 2007 By:
Rabbi David Gutterman, JE Feature
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Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17

Do you recall Golda Meir's famous quip: "Why did God bring us to the only place in the Middle East without oil?" Let's think about that for a moment -- and then think Chanukah. Because no other holiday is as dominated by the oil motif as this one.

The menorah is optimally lit with oil per the Talmud's prescription; and, even if this is not your current practice, think of the week's menu: latkes and sufganiyot (doughnuts) soaked, saturated and suffused with oil. There is, I believe, a significant insight in play, but first let us recall the basic story.

In 163 BCE, after several years of guerrilla warfare against the Selucid Syrian Greeks, the Jews took back the Temple in Jerusalem, purified it, reinstituted the Temple service, and reasserted autonomy and independence in Judea. This independence, by the way, would evaporate after 200 years, to be restored in a national renaissance on May 14, 1948.

The daily Temple service began with the oil lighting of the menorah, and the Hasmoneans -- known by their nom de guerre, the Maccabees (meaning "hammers") -- wanted to reinstitute this prominent service. Amidst the debris caused by war, they discovered -- according to the Talmud's rendition -- one vessel of pure olive oil with the seal of the High Priest still intact. This seal indicated that the oil had not been sullied or defiled by the Greeks.

The Mishnah gives us details and measurements as to how much oil was typically required for the menorah, and this cruse of oil that they found only contained sufficient oil to supply one day's lighting. But in the words of the Talmud: naasah bo neis -- "a miracle occurred." This one vessel lasted for eight days.

I can't help but think of the words of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: "To be a realist in the Middle East means that you have to believe in miracles."

The following year, the sages of that generation -- as a response to this miraculous find of oil -- declared a holiday that would last for eight days to enshrine in Jewish memory and to ensconce in Jewish souls these extraordinary events.

So what was the agenda of the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenistic followers? The Greeks were not interested in destroying the Jews of their day, but they were seeking the dilution of their Jewish ways. Their agenda was not to perpetuate genocide -- the destruction of a people -- but rather to perpetuate "genesis-cide," the destruction of a sacred purpose.

Rearranging Meaning
Why were the rabbis so concerned with oil as a central motif for Chanukah?

The property of oil is unusual in that it does not intermingle with water. It does not, to use a modern idiom, assimilate.

There is an embedded truth here. In Hebrew, hashemen translates "the oil." Rearrange the Hebrew letters, and they spell the word neshama ("soul"); arrange them yet again and they spell the Hebrew word shmonah ("eight").

The rabbis, in their wisdom -- ever the provokers in the best sense of the word -- sought to burn this message into our psyches. For eight days, we perform a mitzvah highlighting the Jewish soul and Jewish way in the world with a substance that itself struggles to retain its autonomy, identity and character.

It would seem that extra-virgin olive oil is not just good for the heart, but for the soul as well. Who said that God brought us to a place without oil?

May you and your family celebrate the power and magnificence of our Maccabean victory -- a victory that, yes, had a military and pragmatic aspect to it. But even more so, it was a victory that -- like the meaning of the Maccabees' name -- "hammers" home the message of our being on a quest to always recommit, at every stage of life, to our Jewish heritage and values.

Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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